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Area 51 | History


History of Area 51

The first U-2 prototype arrives at Groom Lake, 25 July 1955 (photo courtesy of CIA).

"Area 51" is the most popular unofficial name of the United States Air Force "operating location near Groom Lake, Nevada" and the land area of the Nevada Test Site that it once occupied. Less common names include "Groom Lake" or "Groom," "Paradise Ranch" or "The Ranch," "Watertown Strip" or "Watertown," "The Farm," "The Box," "Dreamland," "Project 51," and generically, "The Test Site."

The name "Paradise Ranch" was coined at the U-2 flight test program's inception, by Lockheed's Clarence L. (Kelly) Johnson, chief designer of the U-2, as a joke to mock the then marginally hospitable living conditions at Groom Lake. Johnson later noted, "It was kind of a dirty trick, since Paradise Ranch was a dry lake where quarter-inch rocks blew around every afternoon." "Watertown Strip" was coined, probably by the head of the CIA's U-2 program, Richard M. Bissell, Jr., in deference to Allen Dulles, then CIA director, whose birthplace was Watertown, New York. "The Farm," which is also the nickname of the CIA's training center at Camp Peary, Virginia, derives from the CIA's involvement at Groom Lake. "The Box" refers to the airspace surrounding Groom Lake, designated R-4808E, which prominently appears as a square box on aeronautical maps of the area. "Dreamland" has been the radio call sign of the control tower at Groom Lake and likely refers to the exotic aircraft tested there, the craft of aviators' dreams. "The Test Site" derives from Groom Lake's association with the Department of Energy's Nevada Test Site, of which Groom Lake officially became a part in 1958. "Project 51" is simply a variation of "Area 51."

The origin of the name "Area 51" apparently is classified; however, several theories have been proposed. It is generally agreed upon that the provision of an area designation for the operating location relates to the use of area designations at the adjacent Nevada Test Site, which are used to divide the site into readily identifiable parts. The Nevada Test Site consists of areas numbered 1 through 30, exclusive of 13 (which is off-site), 21, and 28, which was erased by the redrawing of the boundaries of its neighbors, Areas 25 and 27. The Tonopah Test Range, which is not on the Nevada Test Site but is in part operated by the Department of Energy, was referred to as "Area 52" in a 1990 internal telephone directory for the Nevada Test Site and older documents refer to Tonopah as "Project 52."

One theory is that 50-series designations are issued for certain off-site areas and that Groom Lake was named "Area 51" because it was the first such off-site area. That explanation would be invalid, though, if the Department of Energy decided to provide 50-series designations for other off-site locations only after Groom Lake had already been named "Area 51." In that case it may have been that the number "51" was chosen because the Nevada Test Site proper was unlikely ever to be composed of more than 50 numbered areas, such that "51" was the first available number, allowing for some growth or reorganization of the Nevada Test Site and because the relevant actors wanted Groom Lake to be associated with the Nevada Test Site rather than seen as an independent entity, which would have attracted unwanted attention.

Another possibility is that the origin of the name "Area 51" is related to Groom Lake's adjacency to Area 15 of the Nevada Test Site.

The number "51" is also the minimum percent needed to constitute a majority. Whether that relates to the selection of the name "Area 51" is unclear.

Probably more an ironic coincidence than a possible origin of the name "Area 51" is James Madison's "The Federalist No. 51," dating from 1788. Madison's paper argues that the United States' constitutional system of federalism, or checks and balances, was designed with the recognition that national representatives may be prone to the influence of interests which are inconsistent with the public welfare, that a primary purpose of government is "to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part," that "if men were angels, no government would be necessary," and that "you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself."

Perhaps the military-intelligence community came to view Groom Lake as its own state--the fifty-first state, thus the name "Area 51." All of this is pure speculation.

The earliest documents referring to "Area 51" date to circa 1960. A Lockheed film, showing the Skunk Works' preparations for shipping an airplane to "Area 51," most likely the A-12 prototype in 1962, shows Kelly Johnson writing "move out to Area 51" on a chalkboard. Various declassified Department of Energy documents dating from the early 1960s to the late 1970s refer to "Area 51." One such document is CIC #132516, "Memo to Wade et al, subject: Dead Cattle in Area 51." One may search for such documents at the Department of Energy's OpenNet. The Department of Energy referred to the Air Force operating location near Groom Lake as "Area 51" until the late 1970s, when security was tightened, apparently in anticipation of the stealth fighter program. The Department of Energy's official position on "Area 51" currently is that:

The 38,400-acre land area once known as "Area 51" was withdrawn from public use by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, a predecessor to the U.S. Department of Energy, more than 35 years ago under Public Land Order 1662 filed June 25, 1958.

Since that time, the parcel has been used and administered as a national asset. Because [the Department of Energy] is not now active there, Area 51 no longer appears on maps of [the] Nevada Test Site.

Today that land area is used by the Department of Defense as part of its 4,120-square-mile Nellis Air Force Range.

Apparently the Air Force "operating location near Groom Lake" has no official name that is not classified. However, the land which the operating location occupies was officially referred to as that withdrawn by Public Land Order (PLO) 1662 until the Military Lands Withdrawal Act of 1999 rescinded PLO 1662 per § 3011(b)(2)(A). As far as the United States government is concerned, there is no "Area 51." Should you submit correspondence to the government concerning the operating location, do not refer to it as "Area 51." Refer to it as "the United States Air Force operating location near Groom Lake, Nevada on land originally withdrawn by Public Land Order 1662," and you will not foreclose the possibility of receiving a meaningful response. Here the name "Groom Lake" and the term "the base" will be used.

Why Groom Lake Is Uniquely Suited for Testing Aircraft

Groom Lake, Nevada is about 90 miles north-northwest of Las Vegas. Groom Lake is an alkali flat, similar to that at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah or Edwards Air Force Base in California. The lake bed can hold water or "flood" after heavy rains. Because heavy rains are seasonal in this area of Nevada, Groom Lake is generally dry. Groom Lake is near the northeastern limits of the Mojave Desert, where Joshua trees inhabit the upper elevations and creosote, saltbushes, and Mojave yucca dominate the lower elevations. Because the valleys in the area are generally endorheic basins lacking hydrologic outlets, dry lakes like Groom Lake, which lies in the Emigrant Valley, are common in the area. Other nearby dry lakes, for example Texas Lake to the east of Groom Lake, have also been used by the Air Force, though not as the sites of permanent bases, stories concerning Papoose Lake aside. The appeal of a dry lake is that it provides a ready-made hard, level surface for operating aircraft.

The average population density in Nevada is low, but in the area surrounding Groom Lake it is particularly low, far less than one person per square mile, excluding base personnel. In 1955, when Groom Lake was selected as the U-2 testing grounds, there were even fewer people in the area. Even today it is not uncommon to drive for 20 miles or more on Nevada Highway 375 without encountering another motor vehicle. NV 375 is the nearest public highway to Groom Lake and is officially designated the "Extraterrestrial Highway" by the state of Nevada. The area is about as close as one can get to the middle of nowhere within the continental United States. The isolation of Groom Lake, its proximity to the Nevada Test Site and the Nellis Air Force Range, the dry lake bed, and the desert weather conditions combine to produce the ideal location to flight test secret aircraft.

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